The student, Provost Jacques Barzun of Columbia wrote in 1968, is conscious that his teachers subject him to “cavalier treatment … unpunctual, slipshod in marking papers, ill-prepared in lecture, careless about assignments.” Student evaluations of teaching were supposed to be the corrective, but students turned out to be less interested in improved teaching than they were in better grades. By 1981, the Harvard sociologist David Riesman was warning that student evaluations might “mislead ... students to flock to the courses of …‘easy’ instructors.”
Today, the ruling alliance in undergraduate education consists of students who value their studies as a sideline to their social lives, adjuncts whose livelihood depends on student evaluations, faculty members who are interested in research and their own socioprofessional activities, and administrators who want to maintain or expand enrollments. Judging by time-use data, the student consumer is most interested in campus social life. As a reminder, I have on my shelf a recruiting postcard from one well-regarded campus labeled “Join the Club” and picturing students sunbathing around the campus pool. Out-of-class study time has fallen by half since the 1960s, and the trend applies to all groups and institutions.
Interestingly, grades have not suffered. When social scientists plot average study time against average grades over 50 years, they find that study time has gone down while grades have gone up.
Some campuses, such as the University of California at Berkeley and the U.S. Military Academy, and some disciplines, such as engineering, have held the line. But talent waste is no longer an access issue only. It is also a byproduct of the college experience, as shaped, in large measure, by student consumerism.